Falun Gong goes underground amid massive China crackdown

Authorities to explain dangers of movement at news conference today

November 04, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BEIJING -- An intensifying crackdown against the banned Falun Gong movement has sent its practitioners under cover and led Chinese authorities to schedule a rare news conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People today to explain why they consider the group so dangerous.

The repression could become a serious irritant in U.S.-China relations, a Western diplomat warned. Already, he said, "Falun Gong has become a bigger deal than Taiwan" for China's government.

Its leaders consider demonstrations by the popular movement's followers a brazen and at least symbolically serious challenge to the Communist Party's authority.

That is hard for Westerners to understand. Falun Gong leaders say their movement is apolitical, and its practices -- mixing slow-motion exercises with ideas from Buddhism and Taoism with the aim of improving health and spiritual serenity -- hardly sound subversive.

Nonetheless, the government imposed new laws over the weekend that could subject Falun Gong leaders to the death penalty. Since then, the movement's practitioners -- many of them middle-aged women from the countryside -- appear to have ended months of mild Tiananmen Square protests against the government's mounting criticism.

So passive that they often merely smiled when arrested, Falun Gong's members have done a lot that upsets Beijing authorities. While claiming to be apolitical, the group has been bold and adept at organizing anti-government demonstrations in defiance of bans. Its members have proved adroit at winning support from Western reporters and human rights groups.

To Beijing's way of thinking, Falun Gong cannot criticize the Communist regime openly in Beijing, Washington and New York and still assert, as its leader Li Hongzhi does, that the group is just another of China's many meditation, exercise and self-discipline movements.

China's Communist authorities have a special fear of cults, bred of a long history in which cult uprisings signaled that rulers had lost their right to rule, the "mandate of heaven," and were about to fall.

"Everyone in China knows that this is the way dynasties have often ended: with a rise in cults," said longtime China-watcher Orville Schell.

An essay posted anonymously on one of Falun Gong's Web sites could heighten that fear. It reads in part:

"Recognizing that the doctrines of Marx and Mao doomed their country to poverty, the Chinese have set them aside. But they have found nothing to put in their place. No longer believing in anything themselves, the Chinese leaders are all too aware that they can no longer explain why they should hold power."

Last week, Communist leaders took dead aim at Falun Gong, declaring it a cult, adopting harsh new laws to deal with cults in general, and charging cult leaders with sedition-like crimes and fraud.

Under laws approved Saturday by the standing committee of the National People's Congress, those who "organize superstitious sects and secret societies or use superstition to violate laws or administrative regulations" are subject to prison terms of three to seven years. In "extremely serious" cases, even stiffer penalties could apply, including death.

Among the offenses specified are "gathering people together to besiege and charge government organizations, enterprises or institutions, and disrupt their work, production and teaching and research activities." These crimes are more serious if they include "collaborating with overseas groups, organizations and individuals for sect-related activities."

The legislation reflects the Communist Party's "total fear" of any challenges to its authority, said China expert Edward Friedman of the University of Wisconsin. That includes not just Falun Gong, he said, but Tibetan Buddhists, rebel Muslims in the Xinjiang autonomous region and independence-minded Taiwanese.

Serious trouble started for Falun Gong in April, when 10,000 practitioners conducted a peaceful protest outside Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound where China's top officials live and work. The demonstration was a protest against criticism of Falun Gong in the official press.

The demonstration fueled more scathing attacks in the press, and Falun Gong was officially banned in July.

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